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THE VIEW FROM LEFT FIELD

April Is the Cruelest Month: T. S. Eliot and the Boston Red Sox
By Louis Phillips

He never hit a ball out of the infield in his life.
—Ernest Hemingway on T. S. Eliot in The New York Times (April 8, 1981)

Although T. S. Eliot was born in St. Louis, he did not root for the St. Louis Cardinals. No. There was too much of the Brahmin about him. The blood of the New England Eliots coursed through his veins. As a young boy, Thomas (Tom to me) spent his summers in Gloucester in a house built by his father (Henry Ware Eliot), and in 1906 he entered Harvard. Thus, it has been recently conjectured by scholars that Thomas (Tom to me) was a Boston Red Sox fanatic and that the up and downs (downs, mostly) of that star-crossed franchise influenced greatly the content of Eliot's poetry. The wisdom and pre-existential anguish found in such poems as "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and "The Wasteland" could only have been achieved through much suffering. And who knows suffering better than a Red Sox fan? The question, of course, is rhetorical. Persons from Chicago need not reply.

Until recently no scholar could prove T. S. Eliot's intense involvement with baseball. Eliot was so disheartened by the sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920 that thereafter he never once mentioned the Boston Red Sox in his voluminous correspondence, nor did he dare bring up "The shame that no respectable person dare speak about openly" to his close friends Conrad Aiken and Ezra Pound. But Eliot's reticence is much akin to the dog who does not bark in the famous Sherlock Holmes tale. The silence is deafening. Everyone knows that it is impossible to spend any lengthy time in New England without coming into contact with the Fate, Destiny, and General Undoings of the Red Sox. It can't be done.

At long last the truth has spilled out. Last week, in a tavern called Duffy's, an early draft of a poem that evolved into "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" came to light in a battered suitcase once owned by Tris Speaker's widow. The draft of this poem—the so-called Ur-Prufrock—was originally titled "The Wasteland Called Huntington Grounds" and was dedicated to Mr. Speaker, il miglior colpone. The Ur-Prufrock portrays, through the then advanced literary technique called "stream of consciousness," a well-dressed young man on his way to see the Red Sox play the New York Yankees. Naturally the young man (an aristocrat with an expensive tie) is far from optimistic. The baseball fanatic goes in search of the Holy Grail and ends up behind a gas station, shouting himself hoarse for a team that will end the year in last place. No wonder Red Sox fans chanted in unison: ŽNam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent: ("I want to die").

When TSE (just T to me) entered Harvard in October of 1906, the Boston Americans (as the Red Sox were called then) had just completed a season that would leave the most cursory fan gasping for breath. The Americans, under the management of Jimmy Collins (whose initials furnished a great number of writers that year with a ton of unpeeled literary symbolism), finished last—winning only 49 games and losing 105 (Mr. Collins was replaced late in the season by Chick Stahl). Even Eliot's first baseball hero—Cy Young—lost twenty-one games that year. No wonder Eliot walked about Harvard Yard, wishing he were "a box of Crackerjacks/Spilled across the laps of despondent fans." (Later Ezra Pound prevailed upon Eliot to reject product placement endorsements. The Crackerjacks were changed to a pair of uncooked claws. Lobster, most likely. The laps became something more wavy.)

In spite of the hapless play of Boston, Eliot spent so much time worrying over the team that when the next baseball season rolled around, he had been placed on probation by Harvard because of poor grades and "for working at a lower rate than most Freshmen." Many years later Eliot confessed to his first wife that he had simply wasted the first two years at Harvard. No doubt too many days were spent at the Huntington Avenue Grounds and not enough time hitting the books.

In 1907, Boston performed slightly better (the Americans moved all the way up in the standings to seventh place), but Eliot's grim outlook became even more grim, as reflected in the opening lines of the Ur-Prufrock manuscript.

The Wasteland Called Huntington Grounds:
Not Quite A Love Song

Let us go then, you and me
To see
The Boston Americans play
Like patients etherized upon a table.
Let us go through half-deserted streets
To claim our seats
On aisles covered by peanut shells.
Let us cheer and wave our hankies:
Shall we ever beat the New York Yankees?

In the bleachers, a woman wags her tongue,
Talking of the great Cy Young.

The starting pitcher rubbed the ball upon his pants,
The grinning batter choked up upon his bat,
Licked his tongue into the corners of his mouth,
Lingered over home plate that stood in drains,
Smashed the pitch high into the yellow air,
When the shortstop made a sudden leap,
But seeing that it was a soft September night,
Dropped back to earth, and fell asleep.

And indeed will there be a time
For the home team to come back?
Yes. There will be time, there will be time
If the pitcher will bear down,
And drop a sweeping curve over the plate,
Time to hit and time to field,
Time for the manager to make a hundred indecisions
Before the partaking of hot dogs and beer.

One cannot be too blunt: the years that Eliot spent at Harvard were terrible years for the Red Sox. No pennants. No hope. To be Dantean—not even a hope of hope. To console himself, Eliot turned to the consolations of philosophy. Poetry (the Ur-Prufrock and several scraps of lines that eventually found themselves stranded in "The Wasteland"—e.g., "Here is the man with three strikes, and here the Ump") was set aside. Eliot, however, sought one other measure of happiness: if baseball players had colorful nicknames, then he would take a nickname too. He tried out Thomas Stearns "The Crusher" Eliot; T. S. "Alphabet" E; and Thomas "Frisch weht der Windup" Eliot. He tried, but those nicknames did not catch on and only made him the laughingstock of the debating society.

So down down down Eliot's spirits fell. By turning away from baseball (and sequestering himself in the Harvard library writing a doctoral dissertation on the philosophy of F. H. Bradley), he missed the poetry of the 1912 season, a year that would have redeemed all of his suffering. Fenway Park christened. Smoky Joe Wood's incredible thirty-four wins and ten shutouts. A second Boston World Championship. Alas, Eliot saw none of it.

In 1913, he finally ventured to Fenway, but the team's fortunes declined and the Red Sox slumped to fourth. Before the next season had ended, Eliot left for Europe, convinced he would always be a snake-bitten fan. Later that year he met Bertrand Russell, who noted in a letter to Lady Ottoline Morrell that Eliot possessed "no vigour or life—or enthusiasm." If Russell had been familiar with baseball in general and the American League in particular, he might well have grasped the reasons why.

Irony is at the core of Eliot's mature work, and it is indeed ironic that it wasn't until he settled in England (and for cricket) that glory returned to Boston: The Red Sox won the World Championship in 1915, 1916, and 1918. This string of baseball triumphs seemed to inspire the poet. Eliot returned to writing, and any scholar examining the poems of that period will see uncharacteristic bursts of enthusiasm and optimism:

The baseball fan comes to
consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer.

On November 7, 1918, Eliot wrote to Mrs. Jack Gardner, pleading for news of his college town: "Please write to tell me about yourself, and Boston. . . ." (see The Collected Correspondence of T. S. Eliot). Was this not also a heartfelt plea for news about the Red Sox? Some hardened members of the MLA think so. Eliot's investment with this team was at its high point; he fretted over the state of the uniforms worn by the players: "Should they wear the bottoms of their trousers rolled?"

But all moments of greatness come to an end. The bubble burst. The great outfield of Harry Hooper, Tris Speaker, and Duffy Lewis was dispersed, and in 1920 Babe Ruth was sold to the Yankees. Eliot, like the Red Sox baseball club itself, suffered a nervous breakdown. For days he would sit in a dark room, reading and rereading old box scores and muttering to himself, "Human kind/Cannot bear very much reality."

To assuage his grief, Eliot redid the wasteland episodes of his "Ur-Prufrock." One stanza cut from the final version of "The Wasteland" is particularly painful for modern baseball fans to read:

And when we were children, staying at the arch-duke's,
My cousin's, he took me out to Huntington Grounds,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, look at the batter. And down he went.
I was troubled because my name was Thomas,
Not Marie. I weep much of the night. . . .

In the violet years of 1920–1965, Eliot gave up on the Red Sox. He who once described himself as a "classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion" no longer added in soto voce (as he was wont to do) "and a Boston Red Sox fan in Baseball." He wrote Ezra Pound, "Teach us to care and not to care"—a phrase that became a mantra for Red Sox fans throughout the free world. Then, committing spiritual suicide, he substituted verse drama for baseball. His turning away from the "Curse of the Bambino" to deal with Beckett's holy martyrdom weakened the texture and density of his later work. With the possible exception of his Four Quartets, Eliot never achieved the somber heights of great poetry scaled in "Prufrock" and "The Wasteland." Indeed, it is sad to note that until his death in 1965—two years before he would have seen the Red Sox's Impossible Dream take hold of America's imagination—Eliot never mentioned baseball again.

—EFQ

 

Essays and articles by LOUIS PHILLIPS have appeared in Ladies' Home Journal, Elysian Fields Quarterly, San Francisco Chronicle, Dramatists Guild Quarterly, Emmy, The Christian Science Monitor, Newsday, The Armchair Detective, Playbill, Family Circle, Smithsonian, The New York Times, and many other publications. Fort Schuyler Press has just released his second collection of short stories, The Bus to the Moon.

© 2003 Louis Phillips

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